Gill, Kaur, Kaur: Fight Alcohol Use In Punjabi Communities By Providing Accessible Support

When asked about resources that Punjabi community members have accessed, of those who had accessed resources, most (61.3%) did not find them helpful

Manvinder Kaur Gill, Guntas Kaur, Harleen Kaur
July 22, 2021 | 5 min. read | Opinion

When speaking about alcohol use in Punjabi communities, the conversation is usually painted as an ‘unspoken problem’ or a ‘hidden problem’. Or, that it is happening in a community so plagued with shame and stigma that there is absolutely nothing that can be done to educate people that simply will not accept this as an issue.  

This is, however, a deeply decontextualized and unempathetic stance we often take about our own community members. 

As someone who grew up in a household where problems with alcohol existed, this was a constant conversation (and argument).  These arguments often came to a halt as there is limited support and guidance for those who are struggling. It is not that community members do not have the education or do not want support, it is that education and support are made inaccessible and only available to a specific, socio-economically advantaged section of the community. 

Punjabi individuals experience diverse alcohol-related physical, mental, and social problems. Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in Punjabi communities is thought to be due to a mixture of genetics, family tensions, migratory trauma, and stress-related to racism. It is important to note that developing AUD (or an addiction) is quite rare and what most people are actually experiencing may be a problematic relationship with alcohol. 

Although rates of substance use are high in Punjabi communities, outreach has been limited and has failed to account for cultural and systemic barriers. For marginalized communities in Canada, attrition rates of counselling are high, harm reduction messaging is minimal, and internal social barriers all act as major hurdles.

Through a survey and interviews conducted by Asra: The Punjabi Alcohol Resource in 2020, we learned what challenges individuals are facing regarding alcohol use, what support they are accessing (if any), and how these supports are helping or hindering community members. 

Community members were asked about their gender identity, country of residence, and age to establish an understanding of whose narratives were most commonly being represented within this data and report. The community members that this piece surrounds were largely younger females ranging from ages 18 to 34. The country that was most represented was Canada, followed by the United States and the United Kingdom.

Community members expressed a variety of concerns about their loved ones relating to alcohol use. 

The large majority of them said that their loved ones were increasingly dependent on alcohol. Violence and anger were often noted to be a significant challenge with one person saying that “[the loved one's] anger gets worse when he’s drunk. He'd even go to the extent of physical abuse.” 

Multiple people expressed concern about the deterioration of loved ones' physical and mental health (due to the alcohol use and causing the alcohol use). Speaking about the cause of their loved one's challenges with alcohol use, one community member said that “sometimes the office pressure and other problems makes him drink so that he can relieve some stress and feel good.” 

Another community member, talking about the effects of the alcohol use on their loved one, said that they are "commonly forgetful, [they have] no interest in any kind of activity that doesn’t involve alcohol.” Loved ones understood the problems with alcohol to have a variety of causes and cause a variety of challenges, often within multiple intersecting cycles.

In relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, many shared that there has been an increase in stress and anxiety, and as a result, some folks have been drinking more. However, some also noted that the pandemic has actually created space and time for healing at home and with family. 

One respondent from the community shared that the pandemic had “helped [their] sister have time to heal and be comfortable with herself and her sober journey.” 

When asked about resources that Punjabi community members have accessed, of those who had accessed resources, most (61.3%) did not find them helpful. There was a wide range of dissatisfaction with resources ranging from the existence of cultural differences and communication barriers to just general lack of awareness about existing resources and their lack of affordability. 

One community member felt that there was not a shared understanding between them and the individual providing support around the causes of the problem and said that “addiction goes deeper and it’s not easy to quit after hearing a few words.” 

Another community member shared their journey in accessing supports for their father:

“... we found it difficult to find relevant programming and resources for support. We were referred to a detox facility that was uncomfortable/unfamiliar for him. We had little background or support along the way of what detox and rehab and other supports would/should look like. We found "A path to freedom" as one of the only rehab places that had any mention or connection to South Asian contexts, however, this was ultimately unsuccessful. AlAnon was suggested to me by my doctor as a place for support for our family, but we did not attend since we knew little and concerns of stigma or concerns of it not being relevant to the Punjabi context.

From the conversations and responses from community members, there is a clear recognition from loved one’s that challenges with alcohol exist. How do we create appropriate resources, have difficult conversations, and shift long-standing ideologies surrounding alcohol so that those impacted by a loved one’s problem with alcohol can meet their loved one where they are at in a safe and empathic manner? 

How do we address both internalized and institutional barriers to accessing support? 

Although we do not aim to have the answers to these questions, through listening to the existing barriers and understanding why existing resources have not been helpful, we can begin to shape and reshape resources to better serve the needs of Punjabi communities. Moving from simply blaming shame, stigma, or culture as the reason for why problems with alcohol exist in Punjabi communities, we must seek the causes of these conditions. 

Of all the community members we engaged with, only 10% of individuals were opposed to attending an online support group. When gracious resources are created that engage in a practice of cultural humility and acknowledge the challenges Punjabi communities face, support can and will be accessed.

You can read the full report here.


Manvinder Kaur Gill is a community-based researcher whose work is centered on religion, culture, and health equity. She is currently pursuing her Master of Social Work at the University of Toronto and is interested in understanding indigenous Panjabi and Sikh forms of healing for addiction treatment. She can be followed on social media @womanvinder.

Guntas Kaur is a graduate student in Immigration and Settlement Studies at X* University. Her research looks at decolonizing early Canadian Sikh migration story and exploring relationships between Indigenous peoples and the Sikh diaspora from a critical solidarity perspective. Her passion for this field of study led her to live and work with Tl'etinqox First Nation in 2017. 

Harleen Kaur (she/her) is an undergraduate student of sociocultural anthropology at Stanford University. She is interested in community-based research, the intersections of histories of violence, intergenerational trauma, diasporic community formation, and intimate partner violence in immigrant communities.

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